ESMOND, Ill. — Paul Taylor has farmed for decades in the Esmond area and something he’s seen this fall concerns him.
“I have seen moldboard plows out this fall. My first thought was they were being used for primary tillage, but it appears they are being used to plow gullies closed from our heavy rain events this spring,” Taylor said.
Taylor understands the mindset behind it. He used to do the same thing.
“When I was young, we fall plowed our bean ground, that was just standard procedure. The road ditches would be full of dirt in February and March. It was terrible. We had to work the gullies shut. When you worked all your fields every year, you didn’t pay any attention to that, you just did it,” he said.
For Taylor, the alternative to gullies washed through fields and soil eroding into ditches is making sure that as much ground as possible is covered. It’s a lesson learned from his father.
“My dad’s theory was that you had to have something growing on the ground all the time,” Taylor said.
Taylor, like his dad, grew vegetable crops for local Del Monte and Green Giant processing plants. So, cover crops, usually bin-run soybeans because they were cheap and available, were planted on acres that had canner crops like peas, sweet corn and lima beans. If the weather and rain was favorable, farmers could get a second crop out of the ground.
With the Del Monte plant in Mendota closed, this is the first year that Taylor hasn’t grown any vegetable crops. But the cover cropping on his farm keeps growing.
“This year, we are going to have probably 75% of our acres under cover crops. That’s probably as high as we’ve been. Most years, we might be 40% to 50%,” he said.
Taylor is one of a growing number of farmers across the United States utilizing cover crops on their farms.
The 2020 National Cover Crop Survey, supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, along with the American Seed Trade Association, and presented by the Conservation Technology Information Center, surveyed 1,172 farmers across the United States. The online survey was done March 26 to April 12.
Ninety-three percent, a total of 1,090, of the farmers responding to the survey, said they have used cover crops, while 7% said they had never used them — and 24.9% of the farmers responding have used cover crops for more than 10 years.
Taylor is among them. He has been using cover crops on some part of his acres for the past 15 years.
“I think the trick with cover crops is matching what you are seeding for when you are seeding and then matching the mix or variety of cover crops to your skill level,” he said.
Taylor uses primarily cereal rye. One challenge that farmers have in northern Illinois is getting cover crops planted in enough time after corn or soybean harvest for the cover crops to germinate and produce a good stand. Taylor fertilizes with hog manure injected into the soil.
“You can plant it late, it stays vigorous late in the fall and you get some nice growth in the spring,” he said.
One struggle that some new to cover cropping have with cereal rye is terminating it in the spring.
“You have to work at getting it killed in the spring. You have to have your own sprayer and do it yourself or you have to have a really good relationship with your custom applicator,” Taylor said.
Taylor also has experimented with different ways of seeding and settled on an air seeder cart that is pulled behind a vertical tillage tool.
“Most of this ground we are fall tilling a little bit anyway, so we are just putting the rye with it,” he said.
Taylor said he would like to see more farmers look at cover crops as an option to solving soil issues. He sees the difference in his own fields.
“Most people want to solve a problem with iron and big tractors. My opinion is that’s not the way we are going to fix this. Some of this ground we haven’t chiseled in six or eight or nine years and it’s full of wormholes, it drains well, you get a big rain and the water leaves. Now, granted, some of the ground is tiled, but not all of it is,” he said.
He doesn’t regard cover crops as the single solution, but rather one of several tools that he uses to improve soil health and fertility.
“I think minimum tillage is a big help. I think manure is a big help. I think drainage is a big help. I think cover crops are a big help. What I am trying to do is put that package together,” he said.